Roll the clock back as far as you’d like…back before Chuck Noll or before Buddy Parker, all the way to the Depression days of Jap Douds and Johnny "Blood" McNally. Eighty years of Steelers football, and no Pittsburgh defense had ever allowed 55 points in a single afternoon of work. Then, this past November in New England, history was dumped on its head.
Patriots 55, Steelers 31. Memories of roasted defensive backs and linebackers being spun in knots, and limp quotes coming out of the Pittsburgh locker room like, “We just need to do a better job,” and “Hats off to New England.”
It was one of those big franchise-jolting events, a roar that the defense would have to get younger fast, and that more of the old names would soon be disappearing. Since then it’s goodbye to Ryan Clark, LaMarr Woodley, Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood. And say hello to Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt—Pittsburgh’s top rookie defensive imports for 2014.
Shazier was their No. 1 pick, a linebacker out of Ohio State. They picked him 15th overall. Normally when you think of Buckeye linebackers you think of hammer guys, local bullies who blow up the pile or bash anything that waltzes onto their property.
With Shazier, the Steelers are thinking speed and punishment and disruption, a guy who searches the entire field looking for trouble. They used to have another guy like that—Troy Polamalu. But Polamalu doesn’t get around much anymore. They’re hoping Shazier can pick it up from here.
“What we needed was a defensive playmaker,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during his draft-day presser. “[Shazier] fits the bill in that regard….He gets after the quarterback, he rushes the passer and he makes plays in coverage, as well. That’s what he is, a defensive playmaker.”
“He’s a guy that will be on his feet, making sideline-to-sideline tackles associated with today’s football,” added GM Kevin Colbert, who was seated beside Tomlin. “Quite frankly, the man doesn’t have any holes.”
The Steelers want to play Shazier as an inside guy in their 3-4 setup, but technically he’s light for that kind of duty. His combine measurements were “officially” 6'1", 237 pounds. The Buckeyes had him at 6'2", 230 pounds. Another draftnik website (FFToolbox.com) said 222. Okay, take the average, and what you get was good size for an inside man 20 years ago. Today, it’s considered smallish. The quandary is, if you bulk Shazier up there may be a drop-off in speed, which changes his game. If he plays as-is, then the mastodons of today’s O-lines could bury him inside.
That’s why you need big pushers up front, to clear the way for burners like Shazier, and that’s why the Steelers went with Notre Dame DE Stephon Tuitt as their second-rounder. It was a massive need fill for Pittsburgh. Tuitt adds a body to a defensive line that for years had been trying to become younger and less fragile. Finally, it’s younger. But the Steelers may have overdone it. Of the 12 defensive linemen on the current roster, nine have a year or less of pro service. The granddaddy of the list is Cam Thomas, a five-year man. Next is Steve McClendon, a four-year vet who can’t keep healthy.
The pre-draft dirt on Tuitt was his weight and conditioning. As a sophomore he played at 310 pounds; as a junior he banged around at 335. The reason, say the Steelers, was a foot injury and a hernia, which fouled up his training and caloric burn.
“He’s over that injury,” said Steelers DL coach John Mitchell, addressing the media after the draft. “He can push the pocket. He can play the run. He can get off blocks, and he can get to the ball.
“I don’t think he needs to get much bigger, but what he needs to do is fill out and grow mentally.”
Mitchell called Tuitt “a steal,” which is a term you hear all the time when describing second-rounders. People who should have gone higher but don’t. Sometimes they’re golden and sometimes they’re forgeries. So what makes the Steelers think this particular steal is so special?
“This guy has ability,” Mitchell said. “When you look for a defensive lineman, I don’t care what scheme you play. You have a guy who is 6-5, 310 who can run and stays on his feet and is physical, and you have a pretty good football player.”
Picks No. 3 and No. 4 belonged to the Steelers offense, which found its own brand of misery last season.
Pick No. 5, however, went to the defense, and with it Pittsburgh chose a size cornerback—6'1", 190-pound Shaquille Richardson of Arizona. They said they like the way he gets after it and whacks receivers at the line and runs in stride with them.
Not much to analyze with Richardson—yet. Fifth-rounders all try like hell. They pump the extra weights and compliment the coaches and launch their bodies around in camp. But they’re rarely steals. Round 5 is not a high-theft area.
No, the summer focus will be directly on Shazier and Tuitt. Their assignment? No more New England Novembers.